Peak Conference? Let’s Hope So

By Daniel Tubb, published in Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society.

We really have to stop meeting like this. The annual anthropology meetings will be in Vancouver from November 20 to 24, 2019, and while I am excited, I also know “we have to stop meeting like this.” At least, this is how mathematician Malabika Pramanik put the problem of academic conferences in her article in The Tyee. The article summarized a report by Seth Wynes and Simon D. Donner (Department of Geography, University of British Columbia) about the greenhouse gas emissions caused by academic travel by members of the UBC Vancouver campus.

The report makes for sober reading. The major finding is that greenhouse gas emissions from air travel make up between 63% and 73% of the total annual emissions from all operations of the UBC campus. The biggest culprit, representing over half of the total, is short duration trips of about five nights to travel in-person to attend conferences.

In short, the problem is professors, but also students and postdoctoral researchers, who fly to conferences like the 2019 CASCA/AAA meetings in Vancouver.

In fact, only a small fraction of people is responsible for the majority of emissions. Between 8 and 11% of the UBC population produces 50% of those emissions. On my own campus in Fredericton, I suspect I am one of that small number of people. 

I calculated my greenhouse gas emissions from travel (using an online calculator) and wrote about it in July. In the last 18 months, I took flights from Fredericton to Cuba via Toronto for a conference of anthropologists (emitting 675 kg of CO 2 for the journey); to San Francisco via Toronto for another conference (767 kg); to Washington D.C. via Montreal for a conference of geographers (337 kg); to Toronto for a conference of Latin Americanists (243 kg); and to Bogotá via Toronto for fieldwork (743 kg). If you add it all up, all these flights end up contributing about 2,750 kg in CO2 emissions.

Many of us are in the same position, but must spewing greenhouse gases be an occupational hazard of attending conferences?

Clearly, things have to change.

On the last weekend in September, 500,000 people marched in Montreal calling for tackling climate change and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on global warming gives us until 2030 to reduce emissions by about 45% from 2010 levels.  

Let’s hope Vancouver 2019 is peak conference: The last time so many people travel so far for so little time.

Of course, there have long been calls for individuals to make changes to their behaviour. A colleague of mine made a decision a decade ago to stop travelling more than once a year for academic purposes. Vancouver will be the last time I fly so far just for a conference, because cutting back on flying is the biggest single thing I can to reduce my greenhouse gas emissions. 

But, individual choices to not attend a conference can only be part of the solution.

The UBC report suggests some ways to reduce flying: using local carbon offsets, requiring economy air travel because it produces far less emissions than business travel, developing behavioural incentives, creating a centralized system of tracking travel emissions, and improving access to teleconferencing and information and communications technology on campus.

Yet, a better video link or not going is not going to cut it, all of the time.

I work in a small city and province, and conferences feel important. Large conferences aren’t just opportunities to present one’s work, but are also a chance to meet new people, to see old friends, to hear about cutting-edge research, to discusses ideas, to continue collaborations, and to pitch new work. All of this is hard to do over video.

Conferences are important, and while my plan is to travel less, to travel closer to home, and to stay on the ground, we need structural changes in how we organize conferences as well.

What might it mean to organize a CASCA conference differently? Could we promote and facilitate online attendance for those prefer to stay at home? What about hosting two small regional conferences in parallel with live-streaming of panels and events? Might only holding conferences in big hub cities with excellent public transport and a critical mass of people reduce emissions significantly? What about alternating annually between the West Coast and Central Canada? Might holding a conference every eighteen months or biannually be one way to cut emissions by a third? Might only holding conferences at the same time and place as a bigger conference result in significant greenhouse gas emission savings—should we only have CASCA at the same time as the AAA or Congress? Hopefully these and more questions will be discussed in the cosponsored roundtable addressing precisely this issue at the upcoming 2019 CASCA/AAA meetings.

While there are a lot of questions and no easy answers, Malabika Pramanik is right. We do have to stop meeting like this. We need to figure out how to do conferences differently, because eleven years is not that long to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45%, and at least for universities, conferences are one of the biggest emitters.

Cite as: Tubb. Daniel, 2019, “Peak conference? Let’s hope so.” *Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society, 13.2.